All set to free Bangladesh
By PAUL GABRIEL
Source: The Star Online
July 20, 2008
Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, Chief Adviser to the Interim Caretaker Government of Bangladesh, has an enormous task ahead as his administration strives to ensure a free and fair general election this December.
Dr Fakhruddin has strived to put things in order by leading an anti-graft campaign in a country widely perceived as being among the world’s most corrupt. His caretaker administration has the responsibility of preparing one of the world’s largest Muslim democracies for a watershed general election, which it vows will take place this December.
In an exclusive interview with Sunday Star during a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur, Dr Fakhruddin, a noted Bangladeshi economist who once headed the Central Bank, spoke about his unique position and the challenges leading up to the scheduled December polls.
Politics has remained virtually frozen in Bangladesh since you assumed your caretaker role in Jan 2007. Many say the situation on the ground is still as volatile as ever. What is the actual state of affairs in Bangladesh?
I don’t think that politics is frozen in Bangladesh. If you read the newspapers, you will find that political leaders from different parties are making statements, organising meetings. Yes, there are certain laws and rules that really restricted some activities, but the Government has relaxed many of these rules. In fact, there have been large conferences organised by political parties in Dhaka, where they brought in people from outside the capital. In some areas, the Election Commission has announced the municipal council election schedule. So, the political scene is vibrant.
There are 150 million people in your country who expect a fresh start for Bangladesh in December when the general election is planned. But are conditions for free and fair elections, as you have promised, in place? Are you anywhere near that point at all?
Well, we are working towards that, both the Government and the Election Commission. Conditions for free, fair and credible elections can be held. There are a couple of things here - one is a voter list with photographs. That was the demand of many political parties, the people in general and members of civil society. For the past year or so, the Election Commission has been engaged in that task and they are about to complete it. It is a voter list that will include 80 million plus voters.
The Election Commission, in consultation with political parties, members of civil society, and other professional bodies, has also drafted the electoral law, rules, (and) even a code of conduct that will guide the electoral process. Basically, the conditions are being created for free, fair and credible elections.
So you are able to guarantee that the elections will take place as scheduled?
Yes. I do believe and can assure you, as I have assured my people that come December, elections will be held as earlier announced.
Is it a totally fresh voter’s list with 80 million photographs?
Absolutely. It is a totally fresh list where people came forward to be registered. What the Election Commission did was to prepare a voter's list that will have photographs of the voters against their names. In addition to the voter’s list, the people who came forward are also being issued with ID cards. This has also created a lot of enthusiasm among the people, that they are getting an ID card. As you will appreciate, this has been quite a tremendous task, and this was done using the most modern technology where the people were registered and their photographs taken at the same time.
What other electoral reforms have your caretaker administration introduced?
I have mentioned the institutional reforms ? the Election Commission, an independent judiciary. These are necessary if you are going to have a good, free and fair election. And secondly, some of the basic electoral laws, rules and regulations are being amended. But those are being led primarily by the Election Commission, which has decided that they require each political party to be registered and then work under certain parameters. That will bring in, shall we say, greater transparency to the activities of the political parties. This is also part of our democratisation. The Government is giving the Election Commission help. This is something that was demanded by the people even before the caretaker government came to power.
What do you say to critics who doubt that under existing circumstances in Bangladesh, democracy could never take root? Even many Bangladeshis are doubtful about the future of democracy in their country.
Democracy is an institution and form of government that we have chosen. There is no better alternative to democracy. Democracy is also a process. Elections are a necessary condition for democracy, but it is not a sufficient condition. Also, there needs to be, shall we say, a strong institutional base to sustain the democracy. And some of those bases are an independent Election Commission, judiciary, Anti-Corruption Commission and an independent Public Service Commission that recruits people on merit.
There are other institutional set-ups and arrangements, like we are now finalising a Right to Information Act, which would allow our citizens to demand information from the Government, various departments and ministries, down to the lower levels. These are strong institutions that will really provide the firm foundation for democracy. So there is no reason and there is nothing for me to doubt that democracy cannot be established. It has to be and it will be.
Going back to the elections, how many parties will be contesting? Is the boycott still in force by the main Opposition parties? Will this be a setback to your efforts?
Let me first say that the caretaker government is a neutral government. We believe that political parties are necessary to practise democracy. That is why the Election Commission is taking action so that the political parties can really develop in an environment that's more transparent than before.
How many political parties are going to participate? It will be our utmost effort that all the political parties, which the Election Commission has registered and say can participate, will participate. That is under the purview of the Election Commission. But as far as the government is concerned, we will try our best to get every political party to come forward and participate. We want a level playing field for all political parties and want to see fair and credible elections.
So you do not foresee a situation of too few political parties taking part?
I personally do not foresee that because I think all the parties are interested in a free, fair and credible election. And if we can demonstrate that conditions have been created for free, fair and credible elections, I will argue that all the political parties will participate.
Will the two main political rivals, former Prime Ministers Khaleda Zia, who is from the Bangladesh National Party which is the immediate past ruling party, and Sheikh Hasina who heads the Awami League, be contesting?
Ultimately they will have to decide whether they want to contest or not. And it's for the Election Commission to decide according to the laws of the land whether they can contest. If you look at what’s happening with the local council and municipal elections, they are going through that process. The Election Commission has invited nominations and are scrutinising nomination papers as we speak, whether the parties that have submitted nomination papers are fit to seek election under laws and rules of the commission. So that’s a clear, transparent process.
There are those who describe you as the civilian face of the military in Bangladesh. There are questions as to whether you are speaking up for the military or for the people. Are you actually standing up for what the people of Bangladesh want?
I would very much like to state that - yes. We are not a government by the people, but definitely a government for the people. Some of the reforms we have undertaken have been in the interest of sustainable democracy. This is in line with the wishes of the political parties and the people.
In our economic policies too, we have kept poverty alleviation and economic prudence absolutely on top of the agenda of reforms. I very much want to repeat that definitely we are a government of the people.
What about allegations that your caretaker administration has beaten up and thrown protesters into jail, moved against teachers and students who are unhappy with the situation, and stifled the independence of the press?
I don’t think we have moved against any specific groups or protesters. Whenever certain people were apprehended, it has been done under certain laws of the land. It is not because we didn’t allow or do not like to allow any protest.
If you look at what’s happening in the press right from day one, we have been saying that the press and media are free. If you look at the Bangladesh media today, I think I can very well argue and claim that it is as free as anytime in the past. If you look at the television and print media, you will find that they are criticising the government on various counts. They are able to express their free opinions.
So, basically we have not done anything to stop protests or take action against any particular group. But, obviously, if somebody takes law and order into their own hands, then the law of the land should be applied.
What is it like being a caretaker Head of Government?
I never think whether we are a caretaker government or not. I just keep on moving, keeping the goals in view and the goal that elections will be held and that this government will hand over power according to the schedule already announced.